Making the Grade
By Latayne C. Scott — July 24, 2008 More than two-thirds of American colleges and universities now offer online courses, and information provided by eLearners.com shows 62 percent of employers say the value of an online degree from an accredited school is equal to — or superior to — a traditional college degree.
Why? Because, although “cyberstudy” offers flexibility, it demonstrates initiative and great self-discipline.
Advantage No. 1: Convenience
Juggling work, military commitments, family, and a side career of breeding Tennessee Walking horses hasn’t kept Lt. Col. Nancy Cantrell, USAR, from pursuing a degree online. “You can fit your studies into your schedule and . . . you can study from home,” says Cantrell, who is pursuing a master’s in military history (MMH) from Norwich University in Vermont.
Also pursuing the same degree from Norwich is Maj. Craig Grosenheider, USA, who says, “I did not have time to attend night school — and was not interested in the programs or schools available locally anyway. Moving was not an option, and I was not able to take advantage of a fully funded graduate school program during my time on active duty. The online program offered the degree I wanted, from an institution I respected, in a format I could manage — easy decision.”
But not all active duty military officers who pursue online degrees focus on military subjects. Capt. David Leaumont, USAF, says he “didn’t want to just fill the ‘master’s’ check box in my [personal readiness folder].” Leaumont hopes to write, teach, and work in a church after retirement. But his local seminary required full-day attendance three days a week. “That’s an impossibility for [an Air Force] officer,” says Leaumont. “The only way I could get a master’s from a seminary program was to go online.”
Advantage No. 2: The world as your campus
Lt. Col. Donald R. Emerson, ARNG, is seeking a master’s degree in terrorism and counterterrorism at exclusively online Henley-Putnam University. He cites the institution’s accreditation and military tuition assistance requirements, but the clincher was he could study anywhere. “I travel too much to attend a traditional program,” says Emerson. Others, such as Norwich student Maj. William O’Brien, USA, laud the rich, diverse nature of online classmates. “We have students in California, Ireland, and, in my case, Iraq,” says O’Brien. “Some have civilian backgrounds, some military, some academic, and we even have a B-movie actor that has decided it’s time for a change of pace.”
Advantage No. 3: Cyberspace camaraderie
Lt. Lawrence “Mac” McKeough, USN-Ret., just completed his master’s in public administration through American Military University. W.Va. As a retired officer, he found the interaction with active duty students stimulating — as does Cantrell, who shares photographs with fellow students to reduce the impersonal nature of cyberspace.
Capt. Daniel J. Kull, USA, wanted to study at a traditional campus but knew he would be deployed to Iraq for 15 months and wanted to “get a jump on a master’s degree.” Kull found fellowship with a Norwich MMH major and fellow movie buff. “During our online discussions, we often drop movie quotes into our academic postings,” says Kull. “It is amusing when I am reading something he wrote, and I recognize a line from ‘The Big Lebowski’ or something.”
Advantage No. 4: Benefits beyond the diploma
Getting a degree online requires some proficiency with computer technology. That will pay off in other ways, says Norwich student Capt. David Weber, USA. “An understanding of other applications of technology directly helps . . . [because of] the rate at which technology is advancing in the military.” Another Norwich MMH student, Capt. Christopher Center, USA, has reaped a different kind of bonus from his studies. Armor magazine published an article based on one of the papers Center wrote in his first seminar online.
Most people take an online degree with the idea of qualifying themselves for something in the future. But Norwich MMH student Vice Adm. James A. Sagerholm, USN-Ret., isn’t looking toward a future in the Navy. At 80 years old, he finds it “amusing and ironic” that one of his classmates, a 2002 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., is exactly 50 years behind his own graduating class. After graduating, this articulate man would like to write a book, possibly about Navy founders John Barry and President John Adams.
If the convenience of a work-at-your-own-pace online college education sounds appealing, keep in mind there also are a few aspects of an online education some might consider disadvantages.
Disadvantage No. 1: The nature of online coursework
Some students find online coursework more strenuous than a traditional course.
“You’ve either read the material and done the work, or you haven’t. This is especially evident due to the necessity of written communication,” says O’Brien. “You can’t roll the dice and hope you’re not called on in class, and you can’t tank an assignment and figure that you’ll make it up in class participation.”
Though O’Brien cites the difficulty of absorbing academic materials when he reads late at night, daytime study can bring another kind of difficulty, according to Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Urbanek, USA-Ret., who currently works at U.S. European Command Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, while pursuing a Norwich MMH. “I spend about 20 hours on the weekend doing course work, and that’s hard to do when the sun is shining outside.”
Disadvantage No. 2: Impersonality
One issue that is difficult for many online students is they usually never get to meet their professor face-to-face. McKeough cites the disappointment he felt after working hard on a paper and getting it back with the sum total feedback “agro-terrorism is all about money.”
And sometimes the increased interaction with other students can be unpleasant, as Lt. Cmdr. Stanford Fisher III, USN, observed when “liberal-minded” students without military experience voiced “heated” opinions in discussion rooms. In addition, Fisher notes — as do almost all online students — the insufficiency of “cyberdiscussions” to convey a tone of voice or other nonverbal clues.
Disadvantage No. 3: Juggling priorities and finances
The difficulty of integrating a college education into an already full life is extremely difficult for most — and impossible for some. Boatswain Mate 1st Class Keith W. Underhill, USN-Ret., graduated with a bachelor’s in business management from what he characterizes as the “military-friendly” University of Phoenix — but only after cancelling his online classes. “It was not my style of learning,” he says, and was happy to learn the university offered on-campus classes in his area.
“Some instructors require you to work in teams, which is very difficult when you have people all over the world in different time zones,” says Capt. Sandra Davis, USAF, who is nonetheless enthusiastic about her master’s in management and leadership from Webster University. Davis also notes her online studies are more expensive than a brick-and-mortar facility, and “you probably won’t have the opportunity to sell books back at the end of the semester.”
Disadvantage No. 4: The world as your campus
Finally, for all its flexibilities, online education has its challenges abroad.
1st Lt. Richard Ingleby, USA, recalls “I was writing a response to a discussion question, and I swear, every … bug in Afghanistan decided that night to fly into my face or computer screen, since it was pretty much the only light on in the whole FOB [forward operating base],” says Ingleby. “I just remember thinking how this was definitely not your normal educational setting back at the university library.”
After weighing the advantages and disadvantages, is an online education right for you?